American cooking is often celebrated as a melting-pot cuisine, but what about the foods and traditions that came before all of Lady Liberty’s huddled masses stepped into our nation’s kitchens? Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman has made it his mission to revive public interest in the food systems of North America’s indigenous populations. Sherman spreads the delicious message through his company the Sioux Chef, which travels around the world cooking up edible education on Native American foodways and traditions.
His next stop? The Beard House on October 27, to celebrate the release of his new cookbook with a menu inspired by the original cuisine of Manhattan. We caught up with Sherman to talk about his research, aspirations, and efforts to grow Native American cuisine’s role in our country’s culinary conversation.
JBF: How did reviving indigenous cuisine and foodways become your passion?
Sean Sherman: I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation as part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, and I became a chef at a pretty young age, working in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. A few years into my career, after learning a bunch of cooking styles and cuisines, I realized that there was no mention of Native American foodways anywhere. I could walk around the city and find food from all over the world, but nothing that would represent the history or the culture of the people that were living there. So I’ve been studying for almost 12 years now, trying to understand what an indigenous food system is, and how we can apply it today.
JBF: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of readily accessible written material describing precolonial foodways. How did you figure out what the ingredients and the methods were?
SS: Right, I couldn’t just go online and order a Joy of Native American Cooking cookbook! I spent a lot of time just researching and trying to figure it out. I had an epiphany during a period when I was living in a small town in Mexico. There were a number of indigenous groups in the town, and I just started seeing commonalities amongst them. All of a sudden it just made sense to look at the wide diversity of Native American culture.
Right now my team studies North America, so we look at all the indigenous diversity that’s out there, from the bottom of Mexico all the way up to Alaska, in order to understand all the pieces that make up an indigenous food system. Like the knowledge of wild foods in a particular area, certain cooking and food preservation techniques, the study of Native American agriculture (which predates the Europeans by almost ten thousand years), or just looking at the seed diversity we still have today. I’m also on the board of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, which lets me know how many heirlooms are still out there that were native seed crops.
So, we see this really patchwork, beautiful array of all these different tribes. There are 567 federally identified tribes in the U.S., 622 in Canada, and in Mexico, something like three out of ten people still speak indigenous languages.
For us, it’s not only about trying to restore something that was purposely almost wiped off the map for a lot of tribes in the U.S. and Canada, but also to really understand how it fits into life today. Health is a major driver—indigenous diets are probably some of the healthiest diets on the whole planet. They’re low-glycemic, low-salt, and full of great fats and lots of plant diversification. For a lot of indigenous communities and poor communities, you see health disparities because of poor food access and diet. We really want to change that.
JBF: So the research you’re doing goes beyond just history and culinary traditions to look into anthropology, paleontology, and paleobotany?
SS: Exactly. It’s all over the board because I spent a lot of time in the beginning just reading to understand the historical, archaeological, and ethnobotanical context. Looking at all of North America helped me a lot in starting to see the commonalities between different groups. There are so many similarities in the cooking and food preservation techniques.
In truth, animals are the easy part—tackling the botanical side was the challenge. We had to dig into the ethnobotanical and the agricultural pieces to really get a better understanding of the diversification of crops like corns, beans, squash, sunflowers, as they move northward over time, from the bottom of Mexico all the way up into parts of Canada.
JBF: Most of your work is around the Native Americans of the plains of the Midwest—how did you approach researching and developing a menu focused on Manhattan?
SS: To develop the menu, we reached out to some of our contacts out east, and were able to get ahold of a native seafood purveyor and an indigenous farming hub, in part through my work with the Seed Saver Exchange.
There are a lot of really cool heirloom seeds coming out of the New York City region, so we were focusing on trying to use those in the meal, while also just thinking about what kind of fruits and vegetables and flavors are indigenous to Manhattan. We ended up developing an indigenous food map for ourselves to prepare.
JBF: Are there any particular ingredients that are specific to the region or unique to Manhattan?
SS: We’re serving red corn, which is very special because those seeds have been there for such a long time. Using seafood is also exciting because we try to avoid “fusion” in our cooking. When I’m cooking in the Midwest, I’m not mixing Pacific salmon and Southwestern chiles and Minnesota wild rice. I try to keep it very regionally and culturally appropriate, so getting to cook seafood here is pretty unique.
JBF: Is there one indigenous American ingredient that you wish everybody would eat more of?
SS: That’s so hard to answer—that’d be like asking what’s the one European ingredient everybody should try. There’s just so much diversity out there.
I think it’s really about getting people to think about the indigenous history of their particular region. Just by understanding the culinary history and realizing what’s special and particular to your area. For example, a lot of agricultural seeds are extremely rare today because they got wiped off the map, but in my region we’ve got the hand-harvested wild rice, which is unique within the whole world. So it’s about recognizing the amazing ingredients in your backyard.
JBF: James Beard was a champion of American cuisine during his life—what is your definition of American cuisine, and what do you hope will be your contribution to it?
SS: I think our biggest contribution is just introducing the public to the indigenous foodways of the people that were here before, and what lessons they can teach us today. We’re just trying to make people understand that there’s a whole layer of depth of food and flavor sitting around us, no matter where we are.
My definition of American food is fundamentally about fusion—it’s this thing that’s constantly changing. That’s the way we are, too, as Native Americans. We’re at a point where we can evolve the cuisine for the first time in a while. After a few hundred years of poverty and oppression being forced upon native communities, we’re at this moment where we can take our knowledge from the past and our knowledge of today and turn it into something new for the future.
JBF: The Sioux Chef extends beyond the kitchen, and into reviving traditions of precolonial food systems. Can you talk about the work you’re doing around agriculture, and how education plays into your goals for the future of your business?
SS: The biggest thing that we’re focused on right now is the announcement of our non-profit, called NATIFS, or North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.
There are three main goals to the nonprofit’s mission: one is indigenous culinary education—creating places where people can come and learn about an indigenous food system and all the aspects of it through a curriculum that we’ve been developing; another part is a research and development team to further our own education and research and document within our indigenous food lab; and then the third part is about indigenous food access—we’re getting ready to open up our first indigenous food hub in Minneapolis, which will house an indigenous restaurant that’s region-specific, and a training and educational center for people to come and learn.
The plan is to use the food hub to help tribal communities develop their own food businesses, so they have access to healthy, indigenous foods native to their areas. We’re hoping to develop a micro-regional food network around us that we can use as a model to move around, so we pick another urban city and open up another indigenous food hub and then satellite businesses around that one.
So the overall goal is that slowly, over about a decade, we’re going to be spreading education and food access to communities that really need it, but also introducing it to the larger public around the country. Then people can really see the true diversification: you’re able to travel coast-to-coast and stop at different tribal restaurants and see how much diversity there is instead of the same hamburgers and Coca-Cola that you see when you travel today.
Can’t make dinner? Get a taste of the Sioux Chef with this recipe for Wild Rice Pilaf.